NASA Once Again Considering Nuclear-Powered Rockets for Missions to Mars

The space agency has signed a contract with a Virginia-based company to explore the technology. 

nasa nuclear rocket thermal propulsion
NASA

Back in the science fiction-inspired days of the Cold War, nuclear power seemed capable of solving every problem. Nuclear-powered aircraft would soar through the skies. Hydrogen bombs would carve out new canals and shatter mountains to build roads. Atomic submarines would roam the seas for decades without needing to refuel. (That last one came true.) And as it cast its eyes to the moon and beyond, the nerds of NASA began debating whether nuclear-powered spaceships could be used to send people to the heavens—even going so far as to contemplate a giant-sized spacecraft on springs that would ride the shockwaves of detonated nuclear bombs into orbit. 

Well, everything old is new again. Not only is America's space agency once more looking to send humans off to distant bodies like the moon and Mars, NASA is again considering atomic power as a way to get people there. 

To that end, the agency has signed a contract with Virginia-based BWXT Nuclear Energy, which helps create nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy, to explore nuclear propulsion's potential to send mankind to the Red Planet. 

Specifically, the contract is designed to explore the technology known as nuclear thermal propulsion, in which fuel such as liquid hydrogen is heated in a nuclear reactor and blasted out a rocket nozzle to create thrust. As NASA pointed out in a press release, a nuclear thermal rocket would be twice as efficient as the main engines of the Space Shuttle—which already comes close to the current high-water mark for chemical rocket efficiency. The space agency played around with such technology from the mid-Fifties until 1972, but canned the project after plans to send people to Mars were waylaid. 

Such a system would not only enable a Mars-bound spaceship to carry less fuel than a conventional space vehicle, thereby reducing mass, but also enable such a craft to make the trek from Earth to our crimson neighbor in just four months—two-thirds the time of an old-fashioned rocket powered by a chemical reaction. 

Over the next three years, BWXT will work with NASA to develop a new nuclear rocket concept that uses low-enriched uranium (i.e. the kind that isn't potent enough to create a bomb with), as well as hybrid ceramic/metallic fuel element technology. With the data harvested over the multi-year test, NASA will be able to better determine whether the astronauts of tomorrow will be flying to Mars atop nuclear-powered plumes of flame.